Southern Baptists have generally believed that the ultimate objective of the current ecumenical thrust is organic union. We have assumed that denominational distinctives would be dissolved and the autonomy of local churches swallowed up in the evolving monolithic hierarchical structure. And we have quite frankly declared little interest in such a movement.

Deep convictions rooted in our heritage have led us to this position. We believe that these convictions are relevant to issues facing Christianity in this decisive day.

Why have Southern Baptists not been identified with the ecumenical movement?

A major reason is our ecclesiology. The Southern Baptist Convention is a federation of independent democracies, local churches that recognize no ecclesiastical authority superior to themselves. This structure creates a mechanical problem with regard to the NCC and the WCC. These ecumenical councils are composed of denominations and do not accept affiliation by local churches. But no centralized body can deliver the 33,000 local Southern Baptist churches as a unit into any such ecumenical affiliation or corporate unity.

In my opinion, however, not many individual churches would join the NCC if this mechanical barrier were removed. For this ecclesiology is a basic tenet of our Baptist heritage. We believe that the local church is the highest tribunal of Christendom. It is its own final authority, subject only to the will of Christ, its head, as expressed by democratic action of its members.

Baptists have an innate fear of the centralization of ecclesiastical power even within our own ranks. We draw back from any entanglement that threatens to compromise the authority and autonomy of the local congregation. Baptists cannot conceive of ...

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